The rugmaker built her own house, and because she was not a carpenter or a bricklayer or a stonemason, her house was unlike any other. For seven days she worked her loom on the empty plot of land, and she slept beside it at night. When it rained she covered the loom with her own blankets, said a charm over them, and let herself be soaked. When the weather was fine she hummed with the songbirds and wove their good cheer into her home.
On the third day her cousin, whom she had hired to bring her loom and herself across six villages in his cart, sent his wife to ask after the rugmaker’s health. The rugmaker said that she was well and lacked for nothing. Her visitor looked doubtfully around at the loom and the stone-encircled fire pit and the few piled blankets. When she returned home, she told her husband exactly what the rugmaker had said and left out her own opinions. But she told the other good women of the village what a strange family she had married into, and afterward they found many unavoidable reasons to pass the rugmaker’s new-bought holding and cast a glance at her, and she wove their curiosity into her walls.
For the seven days following, the rugmaker slept all day and wove all night. When the king’s riders passed on their great birds between her and the moon, she sang a prayer for renown and another for peace. When she caught sight or sound of an owl or fox hunting she whispered, “Thou and I, thou and I,” so to secure the comradely goodwill of all things working like herself through the night.
On the third night a man crept out of the forest to sit beside the red ashes of the rugmaker’s fire.
“I am a terrible outlaw,” he told her as she worked. “I have killed a great lord, and I once stole a bracelet that was to be given to the queen herself.”
The rugmaker listened to his talk and said not a word against him or his stories. She knew better than to shame a terrible outlaw with the village gossip (told by her cousin on the long and jouncing ride from home) that held him responsible for no worse than the theft of another man’s ox. And so for the rest of that week she had from him many wonderful accounts of his wicked bravery, and she wove these into her house as well.
For the seven days after that the rugmaker wove dawns and sunsets into her house, and the rest of the time she slept, and prayed, and pulled up grass and weeds, and stamped down a good earthen floor for her home. And little transpired during this time except for seven sunrises and sunsets, which are all the magic needed to make a thing that can endure.
In the last sunrise at the end of the three weeks’ work, the rugmaker cut the cloth from her loom and left it flat and folded on her strong earth floor while she went to find the village priest. “Come bless my house,” she said, “so that it will stand.”
The priest went with her to look at her handiwork and her land. He was a man of not very much faith, so he said, “Perhaps if you put a wooden frame under it, it will be a good house.”
“No,” said the rugmaker. “It is not to be made of wood; if I were a furniture maker you would be right. But I only want a simple rugmaker’s house. Surely God can give me that.”
“Perhaps you had better see the wise woman,” said the priest.
“It is not wisdom I want, but miracles,” said the rugmaker. To herself she added, ‘A priest should be ashamed to give away God’s work to sinners.’ But she followed his instructions to the wise woman’s house.
The wise woman was much older than the rugmaker, and her house was a clutter of things that seemed to have no use—ridiculous constructions and broken things left unmended. (The rugmaker thought that she would never keep her own house so carelessly.) The wise woman gave her a cup of tea and told her not to blame the priest too much. “If he did all he should, I would have no living. And leaving a living for others is also something a Christian should do. Not many people will pay for wisdom.”
When the rugmaker had finished her tea, she took the wise woman to her home. The wise woman picked up the cloth in her hands and complimented the rugmaker’s craftsmanship and her hours of work. “A woman should make her own house,” she said. “It is a good beginning for a life.” Then she spoke to the earth, and the wind, and the sky, and the cloth, and when she let it go the rugmaker’s house unfurled to stand as solid as any other. The rugmaker took her last coins from her shoe and gave them to the wise woman. Then she went inside and began to weave the rugs that she would sell.
The next day the priest came and blessed the rugmaker’s house, and commissioned a new aisle rug for the church. He was a good man, if timid, and he feared that the rugmaker would have too few customers in such a humble village. He wanted her to have a little money to start on something else—planting a garden, or raising a flock of chickens, or catching a man—if the need came for that.
The rugmaker did plant a garden, and she bought chickens too, but she did not want for work. Whenever a fine lady passed near the village on her way between larger, more important places, the curiosity of the village women that the rugmaker had woven into her house called to the curiosity of the traveler. Whenever a young and ambitious nobleman rode by on his horse (for the village lay beside a broad thoroughfare and road of the kingdom), the outlaw’s bold and exciting stories drew him to look more closely. Whenever a well-off pilgrim, the sins brought on by his riches well forgiven, passed by light-hearted on the way to his home, the priest’s blessing caught at his baptized fancy. And because the rugmaker had made friends of distant horizons, of night-sneaking things that knew more than they should, and of hard work, she always had a rug that suited her caller’s taste.
One day a warrior came walking alone on the road beside the rugmaker’s village. As evening drew on he spied the rugmaker’s odd house and thought, ‘Here, surely, is someone who will take in a stranger.’
The rugmaker gave the warrior a good thick stew for his supper and told him to go to the priest, who would let him sleep in the church. She noticed the breadth of his shoulders, the banked fire in his eyes, the softened thunder rumble of his voice. ‘If only,’ she said to herself, ‘he were not a fighting man. If only such a man could stand by my side someday.’ Then she resolved to put it from her mind. A woman who prayed every Sunday for peace could not marry a man who killed.
The warrior did as he was told, and the priest let him into the church and gave him a blanket. He slept the night on the thick aisle rug, and in the morning he went back to the rugmaker’s house. She gave him bread and bacon to break his fast and bid him to remember, when he went to war, the kindness of women and to deal gently with them when he could.
“I will do as you ask,” he said. But he went on, seeming troubled, “I slept on the rug you wove for the church, and I had dreams which I cannot remember, except that their strangeness surpassed anything I have seen.”
‘And little wonder,’ the rugmaker thought, ‘when a man of the sword sleeps in the house of God.’ But she kept her own counsel.
“When I awoke I felt rested and well in body, but I wept for the life I had set out to live, without that strangeness in it. If I return from this war in honor, would you...will you be my wife? My father is old, and I am his only son. I will have land and cattle, and you can ride a lady’s horse and rest your hands from all labor but your weaving. Or if you think it better I will give up my inheritance and live here with you, and work for some man born below me, and never think it hard.”
The warrior felt pleased with himself, for he had never given such a fine speech before, but he watched the rugmaker carefully, because he had never meant anything so surely.
Now the rugmaker was used to listening and serving, but she was not used to being expected to reply to a man except when the question concerned the price of her handiwork. So she cut more food for the warrior and imagined what her friend the wise woman would say. She sat down again at her loom before she replied, “I am a humble woman, and you have paid me a higher compliment than I deserve. Surely it was not the work of my hands but the presence of God in his church that disturbed your dreams. If you are afraid to lose that, do not go to this war, but go home and confess to your priest and ask him to take you into the brotherhood. That way you will follow God in whatever strange paths He may choose for you, and you will never be without what you have felt.”
The warrior told her not to be too modest. He had gone to church since he was a child. He had been baptized. Surely he would have felt the presence of God before now, if it was God’s presence he lacked.
But the rugmaker refused to await his return or give him any promise, so at last, discontented, he went on his way.
The rugmaker worked all day.
She finished a rug commissioned by an old lord for the room of his young bride. Into it she put the comfort she had learned from her mother, the strength that the warrior had made her discover to refuse his worship, and a little of the outlaw’s dreaming.
She worked in her garden, pulling up the weeds that would stifle her vegetables and keep them from the sun. Some of the weeds were ugly and some were beautiful, bright and beflowered, but none of them could feed an honest Christian and help her live.
Then she fed her hens and herself and swept out her small woven house with its neat dirt floor and went to see the wise woman.
She brought a fresh tomato and two eggs, because the wise woman was her friend. But she was one of the few who would pay what was right for good counsel, so she brought money as well.
The wise woman listened to the rugmaker’s story, working all the time to mend a broken rocking chair. She was always taking in the maimed items of the village; the work seemed to help her to think, and if she could fix them she earned extra food or firewood.
The rugmaker thought of how lucky she was to have such an understanding and helpful friend, and repented of her dismay the first time she had seen the cluttered mess of a house the wise woman kept. ‘There are many different ways of living well,’ she said to herself, ‘whether as a timid priest or a disorganized adviser. Perhaps I should have been slower to judge. Perhaps I should not have turned the warrior away so quickly. After all, he would not have been a warrior any longer when he returned to me.’
But the wise woman said, “You did rightly. A woman must not stand between a man and his God, even if it puts her in the sky. If once you stand between a man and God, you can never look at them both together. How can you choose on whom you will turn your back?”
The rugmaker went home comforted, for at least she could think of God and the warrior at once, and if ever he returned she could be both happy and at peace.
On Sunday she prayed for his soul. She did not pray that he would come back to her. Nor did she ask God to send her a man of peace but like the warrior in other ways. She wished she could ask the wise woman if it were permissible to pray for such things, but she felt too ashamed of her silly requests, so she kept quiet about them.
Seasons passed, and the world grew and shrank and gained and lost. The rugmaker watched the changes in her garden, among her chickens, and in the faces of her neighbors. But her life stayed much the same.
Then one day a man with a mandolin came to the village. He had traveled many miles and many days, playing for his supper and for the right to sit beside other men’s fires and to sleep, when he was lucky, beneath other people’s blankets. He loved the life of the road, because it meant that he could spend so many hours with his music. He loved his mandolin as he had not had the time or patience to love any human person.
And yet, as time passed, the musician had begun to feel himself grow old. On unlucky nights, when he slept outdoors, he lay awake longer than he would like and woke too often, and in the morning the stiffness hung about him too long. He began to wish to sit beside a fire he had the mastery of, to keep his own stock of blankets and be ever as warm as he desired.
He began to watch, also, the couples who listened to his music, and although before he had bedded women in a wandering man’s lying way, he began to think on constancy. How nice it might be if someone cared to hear his songs more than once, if someone else knew his own-made tunes. How nice it would feel, after all this time, not to play always what others asked of him, not always to curry favor in hope of a drink or a coin.
Thinking so, he came to the rugmaker’s village and played in their new tavern his songs along with other men’s songs, which were always more popular than his own. He had a fine fair voice and a quick and accurate hand, and love besides, which could change both those talents into something mystical. But this night, discontented even after earning dinner and bed (to which he promised to return), he went out into the streets to sing his own songs only under the moon, walking slowly where his feet led him.
Perhaps the rugmaker’s prayers for peace drew his weary soul, or perhaps it was only the sight of the pretty cloth house that stopped him there.
The rugmaker heard him singing and playing, and her weaving changed to follow the rhythm of his song. When he stopped, she stopped, and when he came to her door she stood and went to him.
They stood in her doorway, looking at each other. The rugmaker was not beautiful, but it could be that the musician favored her more because of it, for she had the peace of plain living in every feature, and everything about herself and her home spoke of simple work and a stable life. The musician, in his turn, had long hands and a wide mouth and the gentlest touch of any man walking. He took her hand. “I have been roaming for years,” he said. “I am a wanderer and a fool, and I have no true love and no place to call mine.”
She said, “If you will play for me you’ll never want for a roof over your head, though it be a cloth roof only. If you’ll play always for me, I will weave for you and we will have food and warmth aplenty, and never be alone. I am a good rugmaker. Many wealthy people have bought my wares.”
“I am a layabout and a song-maker,” he warned her. “I cannot promise to work hard for you, or to support you as a husband should.”
“No. I believe you. But if you will play for me always, if you will play me all your songs, I will be content.”
So the musician never returned to the bed he had been promised but slept the night in the rugmaker’s house. In the morning the priest agreed to marry them that very day, lest they fall into sin.
They lived happily, according to the agreement they had made. The rugmaker’s weaving grew even more beautiful, with her husband’s music in it.
The wise woman visited them once. “Life is full of surprises,” she said, which was rather inane, given her profession. “Now aren’t you glad you never let that warrior settle with you?” But her smile held craftiness and a true question.
The rugmaker thought of the music that filled her home every day, the work her husband’s presence had enabled her to make. “I am content,” she said, pushing aside the memories that threatened her certainty.
The musician continued to play, softly, as they talked. He looked at neither of the women, as if he did not hear.
“Well, it’s enough,” the wise woman replied. “Contentment is a rare and enviable state.”
The rugmaker’s lips twitched of their own accord, itched to speak her mind, to ask the wise woman what right she had to come and make the rugmaker doubt herself now, while when it mattered no one had been surer that the rugmaker had done well to send the warrior away.
While the two women sat watching each other over their tea, the musician stood and left them to go and play in the tavern. Drinking men always liked him, for he knew all the old songs.
“You’ve grown unpleasant in your old age,” said the rugmaker when he had gone.
“You’ve grown foolish in yours. I remain the same.”
“I’ve a right to a little company, and it’s time I had someone to take care of. It’s not good for a person to be alone.”
“If you wanted a stray, you could have taken in a dog.” She stood. “I won’t say trouble will come of it. But it’s for you now to see that it doesn’t.”
And for a while no trouble came, no real trouble, though an unease lay in the house for days after the wise woman’s visit, until the music drove it out.
The wise woman did not return, and the rugmaker began to avoid visiting her either, although she didn’t bring the subject up again.
Something sat in the rugmaker’s belly, small and solid and chill, and within a little time her husband’s songs ceased to warm it.
For his own part, the musician spent more and more evenings at the tavern, and made friends of unreserved people who never stared past him, as his wife did, with that placid, unreadable look that he knew shouldn’t break his heart.
And one autumn evening, when the rugmaker stood alone in her doorway to watch leaves dancing in the twilight, a man came walking up the path to her.
His strut had changed to a limp and his face had seen hard weather, but she knew him.
“No,” she said into his warm smile. “It isn’t.”
“I’ve come back,” he said. He put his hand on her arm and guided her indoors. She stood in the middle of the floor, not moving to sit, to offer him food or drink. “I have changed my ways. I spoke to a priest. But I am not taking up holy orders. I had to come back to you.”
She put a hand over her mouth and another over her heart and quieted her breathing against the anguish she felt.
He stared around the little house, like a man sent home from the gallows. “It’s just as I remember it. And you are just the same.”
“I’ve changed. So has the house.” And she tilted her head toward the second chair by the fire, her husband’s seat.
The warrior smiled at her still, uncomprehending. “Not so much.”
“I told you not to come back. You might have died in the war. You might have...”
His lips faltered. “That’s true. But I didn’t.”
The rugmaker turned away, beginning to crumple, and he came and lifted her in his arms and rested her head on his shoulder as she sobbed out the whole story. The wedding, the marriage, the wise woman, and the fear she had learned too late and kept deep and unspoken, the fear of his return.
When she quieted he led her to sit on the edge of her bed. “It’s all right, my love,” he said. And she wept again. “You saved me from a wretched life,” he told her. “It’s more than I could have asked for. I will live in the village and be a neighbor to you, if I cannot be the man of your house.”
And so it was.
Night after night he came to her, as soon as her husband left for the tavern. They would sit, fireside, and tell stories of all the years they had not shared. Now and then he would lay his fingertips against her forearm or the back of her hand, and when they said goodnight he’d kiss her palm. And with each touch she felt the chill knot in her belly begin to unravel.
As time went on they left the tales of his conversion and her marriage far behind them, and spoke instead of childhood, and referred no longer to her husband or to God.
And his good-bye kiss moved from her palm to her cheek, and thence to her lips, and all her righteousness and worry melted away together, and he shed his weapons and his boots, and they abandoned the slatted rocking chairs for her soft, high-piled bed.
Until at last, one spring night even the warrior forgot his wariness, and they slept.
The musician strolled home humming a new melody, abuzz with the praises of strangers and friends. He took two steps into the house before he knew what was wrong. For three breaths he listened to the other man’s snore.
Then a fire roared in his head, his heart, his belly. Shaking, he came to the broadsword discarded beside his own hearth. He lifted it, given strength by his rage, and with a strangled cry he swung.
The rugmaker woke to the cry, and the warrior by instinct rolled to the floor as the blade descended and bit into her side. She shrieked.
She sat up, in blood and pain, to see her husband backing away, already retching. He put up his hands in defense or surrender as the warrior sprang toward him. She heard the crunch of bones, and then the screaming. The warrior twisted the musician’s hands in his own and broke one by one the delicate fingers.
With a wail, the rugmaker threw herself, bleeding, between them. Her husband collapsed onto the floor. “How could you? How could you?” she cried. The warrior met her gaze and fled into the night.
Willing herself not to faint from the pain, the rugmaker crawled to stanch her wound with her own woven wall.
She felt a fire in her side and saw the wound beginning to mend. Then she remembered the priest’s blessing, and she curled against the wall and wept with shame.
Before long her own weeping abated enough for her to hear the musician moaning over his hands. She stood, gritting her teeth, bound up her fragile belly, dressed gingerly, and went out to seek the village physician.
When she had found him, she sent him ahead toward her home and shuffled on behind.
The warrior stepped from shadows into her path, but she only moved around him. “I had to protect you,” he said.
And she said, “That wasn’t protection. You know what that was.”
He let her go.
The musician’s hands healed, slowly, in the usual way. The rugmaker put his rocking chair out in the dooryard, and he sat in the sun for weeks, cradling his hands in his lap like two broken birds too beloved to bury.
Her side healed into a puckered red weal.
Neither of them spoke apology or accusation, and neither ever saw the warrior again.
When the wind grew winter-cold, she brought her husband’s chair in by the fire and put the mandolin into his hands. “Play for me. You said you would play for me always.”
And she wove their fortunes through the dark of the year, and through the years afterward, to his slow and lonely melodies.